When it comes to fantasy movies of the 80’s and 90’s, you have to believe that nostalgia plays a massive hand when it comes to how these things sit in your memory. Take Jumanji for example, a hugely reasonable – if decidedly unremarkable – tale of magical board games and rampaging wild animals that seems to have logged in a tremendous amount of goodwill thanks in part to a starring role for the late, great Robin Williams. Based on the 1981 american children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg and directed by Captain America: The First Avenger’s Joe Johnston, Jumanji delivers it’s above average thrills in an economic and reasonable fashion while never really hitting the heights of adventure it probably should, choosing instead to entertain, but never enthrall and despite being crammed with wild animals, never really gets wild enough.
After an 1869 set prologue establishes a mysterious board game getting buried by to freaked out young boys, it’s discovered a century later by Alan Parish, a put upon child who alternates his days between getting bullied and striving to please his stern, pillar-of-the-community father. Such a life has left Alan prone to flee from his troubles whenever shit gets even remotely real and utter resistant to responsibility but when he sits down with a friend and plays the jungle themed “Jumanji” game he found he finds a problem he can’t run away from. You see, Jumanji is magical and every roll of the dice has very real and VERY dangerous consequences which manifests when a fateful landing of the dice means that Alan is sucked into the game until his playing partner rolls a five or eight. This doesn’t happen however when his understandably traumatised friend runs screaming from the house and the game isn’t found again for TWENTY SIX YEARS when a woman buys the Parrish house with her orphaned niece and nephew.
Dealing with their own emotional problems, Judy and Peter discover the old game and instead of selling the damn thing on Ebay and making some serious cheddar (it was still 3 years away from launching), they crack the lethal thing open and start playing. Unleashing various creatures from the game with every turn such as a predatory lion and some gremlin-esque monkeys, Alan is finally retrieved from inside the game where he’s been living like Tarzan only to find he’s now a grown ass man, his parents dead and his home town undergoing dire straits thanks directly to his disappearance. Realising that all this jungle shit is only going to go away if they finish the game, the trio locate Alan’s old friend, Sarah (now a recluse) to continue playing but unfortunately they’ve only seen a fraction of what the insidious plaything can hurl at them and things rapidly get out of control with the arrival of monsoons, maneating plants, animal stampede and, worst of all, the malevolent hunter known as Van Pelt who has marked Alan for spot on his trophy wall.
For all it’s faults, Jumanji is a sweet, somewhat Amblin-esque family film (with all the childhood trauma here I’m frankly stunned is ISN’T a product of the famous studio) that does exactly what it says on the tin. For exampme: you want Robin Williams? You got Robin Williams – but only at a quarter strength. You want rampaging beasties? You got rampaging beasties – but only at episodic intervals. It’s this slightly frustrating give and take that means that the movie doesn’t have any real surprises under it’s sleeve, relying on unleashing a burst of action every so often like a trainee driver annoyingly riding brake on their first lesson. Also ot helping much is the movie’s rather odd pacing, which thanks to that false start in 1869, then again in 1969, then AGAIN in 1995 means it takes about 25 minutes for the damn thing to gain any momentum at all and while it does mean we get some legitimately solid character work, younger viewers may feel that Alan Parrish’s time in the jungles of Jumanji is agonisingly playing out in real time.
However, when the film does actually pick up the pase, Johnston (never the most innovative of blockbuster filmmakers) delivers some truly diverting moments with the standouts being a utterly gorgeous animatronic lion to the strutting, upper-class sociopath, Van Pelt who adds a much needed human face to the threat thanks to a sneering turn by Jonathan Hyde (who tellingly ALSO plays Alan’s father) who fares better here against marauding jungle warfare than he did in Anaconda…
The main cast work well and it’s legitimately sweet seeing Robin Williams pulling some action duty as he swings from vines and wrassles alligators while dusting off his big child act for a far better outing than he did in Jack and an offensively young Kirsten Dunst and an amusingly cynical Bonnie Hunt deliver more than capable support.
It would be interesting to gauge the opinions of anyone who gone back to watch this for the first time on the strength of the new, Dwayne Johnson Jumanji movies (both respectful sequels in their own right and packed with gags and suprises) as the original movie may seem a little too quaint compared to the madcap body swapping that the series eventually became.
Coasting by an waves of childish goodwill is nothing to be ashamed of, but that doesn’t include some of the CGI which unfortunately must be singled out as having aged HORRIBLY with the chattering, nightmarish, dead-eyed monkeys being some of the worst examples of the medium seen during the whole of the 90’s, yet features some sterling animatronic and puppet work whenever the threats are filmed in camera. That being said, the prosthetics used to show Peter gradually being turned into a chip thanks to a bout of cheating end up being inadvertently creepy as shit…
Exciting, funny and entertaining – but only when it needs to be – Jumanji is a slightly frustrating rumble in the jungle, but in the long run it’s mostly a case of safari, so good…